12 YEARS A SLAVE
About the Production
Based on the unforgettable memoir that exposed the inner workings of slavery to the American
public in the 19th Century, comes 12 YEARS A SLAVE, director Steve McQueen's mesmerizing and
moving account of New York family man Solomon Northup's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) unexpected
kidnapping, his dizzying journey into Louisiana's slave plantations . . . and his unbreakable quest to
get home to those he loves.
The true story of Northup's sudden loss of liberty is equally touched by transcendent moments
of beauty, kindness and reminders of the connections we have to one another. From an accomplished
musician and craftsman with a wife and children in Saratoga Springs, New York, Northup finds
himself in a staggering situation: drugged, stripped of his papers, shackled, and sold to an unflinching
slave trader named Freeman (Paul Giamatti). He is shipped to Louisiana where his fate lies at the
mercy of a series of plantation owners including William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Edwin
Epps (Michael Fassbender), both of whom change Solomon in very different ways. While Solomon
takes comfort in his friendships with Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), his mind
and body are forced to the limits of human capacity at the whims of his captors. But at every turn, he
refuses to succumb to hopelessness or the surreal oppression into which he has fallen, holding fast to
his innate belief that he was, is and will one day again be a free man. When Solomon is finally
introduced to a charitable carpenter called Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), his path to freedom is paved by a
letter declaring his captivity and leading to his triumphant return to his family and subsequent
publication of his revolutionary memoir.
McQueen, no stranger to intense yet breathtaking filmmaking in his first two films HUNGER
and SHAME, began to envision 12 YEARS A SLAVE before he had even read the book. He knew that
he wanted to explore American slavery in a way that hadn't yet been seen: from the point of view of a
man who had known both the elation of a free life and the injustice of human bondage. McQueen was
aware that historically some Southern slaves had been kidnapped from Northern states, but only later
would he learn that a memoir of the precise experience he was imagining already existed.
"I wanted to tell a story about slavery, and it was just one of those subject matters where I
thought to myself, well, how do I approach this? I liked the idea of it starting with someone who is a
free man, a man who is much like everyone watching the movie in the cinema -- just a regular family
guy," McQueen recalls, "who is then dragged into slavery through a kidnapping. I thought of him as
someone who could take the audience through the ghastly conveyor belt of slavery's history."
At the time, McQueen mentioned his idea to his wife, Bianca, and it was she who found
Solomon Northup's memoir, a book that had once rocked American society but was no longer well
known or widely read. "My wife found the book and as soon as I opened it, I couldn't stop. I was
stunned and amazed by this incredible true story. It read like Pinocchio or a Brother's Grimm tale,
with a man pulled from life with his family into a dark, twisted tunnel, yet one that has a light at the
end of it," he says.
McQueen found, as many had, that Northup was a shrewd observer of people, one of the few
able at that time to bring to the world the vital news of what slavery actually looked and felt like from
the inside. Shocking as his story was, Northup's tale also had a contemporary feel to it, an enlivening
journey of both physical and moral courage. It was a profound act of bearing witness, and at the same
time, asked a question that the greatest literature asks -- not just what happened but, what would you
With 2013 marking the 160th anniversary of Northup's freedom, McQueen felt his story was
especially urgent to tell right now. "This story has far more reach than anything else I've seen or read
lately," he says. "I couldn't believe that I hadn't known about this book. How was it possible? Most
Americans I mentioned the book to hadn't heard of it either. For me it is as important to American
history as The Diary of Anne Frank is to European history -- a remarkable account of man's journey
into astonishing inhumanity. Everyone thinks they know about this period in American history. But I
think a lot of things in this film will surprise people the way they surprised me. I felt it would be an
honor and a privilege to turn the book into a film and bring this story to audiences."
Known for juxtaposing intensely emotional and sometimes provocative scenes against frames
with the lush, formal beauty of paintings, the story would give McQueen a chance to take his
distinctive visual style farther than ever before -- and at the same time to hone his skills as a storyteller.
And, ultimately, it was the story of 12 YEARS A SLAVE that inspired McQueen -- a story at
once shattering yet told with poignant dignity and inspirational determination. "At its core, this is a
story about family and the hope of coming home to your loved ones," he summarizes.
"It's such an extraordinary story, and it's so moving. It instantly gave us the perspective we
wanted, a period of time long enough to really understand or investigate what slavery was, what it
meant on a day in and day out basis and what it meant on so many levels," says producer Dede
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